The Late Bronze Age in the Aegean was characterized by raiding and resettling of threatening and migratory peoples, sometimes used as mercenaries by the Egyptians, and operating primarily on land. Many were not listed as Sea Peoples. Among them were the 'prw (Habiru) of Egyptian inscriptions, or 'apiru of cuneiform ("bandits"). Sandars uses the analogous name, "land peoples. Some people, such as the Lukka, were in both categories. Some scholars suspect that one of the groups of "Habiru" were the Hebrews.
The identity of the sea peoples has been an enigma to modern scholars, who have only the scattered records of ancient civilizations and archaeology to inform them. The evidence shows that the identities and motives of these peoples were not unknown to the Egyptians; in fact, many had been subordinate to them or in a diplomatic relationship with them for at least as long as the few centuries covered by the records.
The earliest ethnic group later considered among the sea peoples is believed to be attested in Egyptian hieroglyphics on the "Byblos obelisk" found in the "Obelisk Temple" at Byblos. The inscription mentions kwkwn son of rwqq, transliterated as Kukunnis, son of Lukka, "the Lycian. The date is given variously as 2000 or 1700 BC.
Records or possible records of sea peoples generally or in particular date to two campaigns of Ramesses II, a pharaoh of the militant 19th Dynasty: operations in or near the Delta in Year 2 of his reign, and the major confrontation with the Hittite Empire and allies at the Battle of Kadesh in his Year 5. The dates of this long-lived pharaoh's reign are not known for certain but they must have comprised nearly all of the first half of the 13th century BC.
In his Year 2, an attack of the Sherden or Shardana on the Nile Delta was repulsed and defeated by Ramesses who captured some of the pirates. The event is recorded on Tanis Stele II. An inscription by Ramesses II on the stela from Tanis which recorded the Sherden raider's raid and subsequent capture speaks of the continuous threat which they posed to Egypt's Mediterranean coasts:
The Sherden prisoners were subsequently incorporated into the Egyptian army for service on the Hittite frontier by Ramesses. Another stele usually cited in conjunction with this one is the "Aswan Stele" (there were other stelae at Aswan), which mentions the king's operations to defeat a number of peoples including those of the "Great Green." If the latter term means "sea", the "sea peoples" seem to be indicated even at this early date, but if it means the swampy Delta region, then the peoples need not have been of the sea. It is plausible to assume that the Tanis and Aswan Stelae refer to the same event, in which case they reinforce each other.
The Battle of Kadesh was the outcome of a campaign against the Syrians and allies in the Levant in the pharaoh's Year 5. The imminent collision of the Egyptian and Hittite empires became obvious to the both of them and they both prepared campaigns against the strategic mid-point of Kadesh for the next year. Ramesses divided his Egyptian forces, which were then ambushed piecemeal by the Hittite army and nearly defeated. The arrival of the last of the Egyptians turned the tide of battle and the king was able to escape, leaving Kadesh in Hittite hands.
At home, Ramesses had his scribes formulate an official description that has been called "the Bulletin" because it was widely published by inscription. Ten copies survive today on the temples at Abydos, Karnak, Luxor and Abu Simbel, with reliefs depicting the battle. A poem, the Poem of Pentaur, describing the battle survives also.
The poem relates that the previously captured Sherden were not only working for his majesty, they were formulating a plan of battle for him; i.e., it was their idea to divide Egyptian forces into four columns. There is no evidence of any collaboration with the Hittites or malicious intent on their part, and if Ramesses considered it, he never left any record of that consideration.
Ramesses had defeated the Kheta, or Syrian Hittites, the previous year. The poem relates that the Kheta were at Kadesh now with a force "like grasshoppers". The list is mainly "land peoples", but the Lukka are there as well.
The major event of the reign of the Pharaoh Merneptah, 1213 BC to 1203 BC. 4th king of the 19th Dynasty, was his battle against a confederacy termed "the Nine Bows" at Perire in the western delta in the 5th and 6th years of his reign. Depredations of this confederacy had been so severe that the region was "forsaken as pasturage for cattle, it was left waste from the time of the ancestors.
The pharaoh's action against them is attested in four inscriptions: the Great Karnak Inscription, describing the battle, the Cairo Column, the Athribis Stele (which last two are shorter versions of the Great Karnak) and a stele found at Thebes, called variously the Hymn of Victory, the Merneptah Stele or the Israel Stele. It describes the reign of peace resulting from the victory.
The Nine Bows were acting under the leadership of the king of Libya, and an associated near concurrent revolt in Canaan, involving Gaza, Ashkelon, Yenoam and Israel. Exactly which peoples were consistently in the Nine Bows is not clear, but present at the battle were the Libyans, some neighboring Meshwesh, and possibly a separate revolt in the following year involving peoples from the eastern Mediterranean including the Kheta (or Hittites), or Syrians, and (in the Israel Stele) for the first time in history the Israelites. In addition to them the first lines of the Karnak inscription include some sea peoples: which must have arrived in the Western Delta or from Cyrene by ship.
Later in the inscription Merneptah receives news of the attack:
"His majesty was enraged at their report, like a lion", assembled his court and gave a rousing speech. Later he dreamed he saw Ptah handing him a sword and saying "Take thou (it) and banish thou the fearful heart from thee." When the bowmen went forth, says the inscription, "Amun was with them as a shield." After six hours the surviving Nine Bows threw down their weapons, abandoned their baggage and dependents, and ran for their lives. Merneptah states that he defeated the invasion, killing 6,000 soldiers and taking 9,000 prisoners. To be sure of the numbers, among other things, he took the penises of all uncircumcised enemy dead and the hands of all the circumcised, from which history learns that the Ekwesh were circumcised, a fact causing some to doubt they were Greek.
Some sea peoples appear in four letters found at Ugarit, the last three of which seem to foreshadow the destruction of the city around 1180 BC. The letters are therefore dated to the early twelfth century. The last king of Ugarit was Ammurapi, or Hammurabi (c. 1191–1182 BC), who, throughout this correspondence, is quite a young man.
The earliest is letter RS 34.129, found on the south side of the city, from "the Great King", presumably Suppiluliuma II of the Hittites, to the prefect of the city. He says that he ordered the king of Ugarit to send him Ibnadushu for questioning, but the king was too immature to respond. He therefore wants the prefect to send the man, whom he promises to return.
What this language implies about the relationship of the Hittite empire to Ugarit is a matter for interpretation. Ibnadushu had been kidnapped by and had resided among a people of Shikala, probably the Shekelesh, "who lived on ships." The letter is generally interpreted as an interest in military intelligence by the king.
The last three letters, RS L 1, RS 20.238 and RS 20.18, are a set from the Rap'anu Archive between a slightly older Ammurapi, now handling his own affairs, and Eshuwara, the grand supervisor of Alasiya. Evidently, Ammurapi had informed Eshuwara, that an enemy fleet of 20 ships had been spotted at sea.
Eshuwara wrote back and inquired about the location of Ammurapi's own forces. Eshuwara also noted that he would like to know where the enemy fleet of 20 ships are now located. Unfortunately for both Ugarit and Alasiya, neither kingdom was able to fend off the Sea People's onslaught and both were ultimately destroyed. A letter by Amurapi (RS 18.147) to the king of Alasiya--which was in fact a response to an appeal for assistance by the latter—has been found by archaeologists. In it, Ammurapi describes the desperate plight facing Ugarit:
My father, behold, the enemy's ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka?...Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.
Ammurapi, in turn, appealed for aid from the viceroy of Carchemish—a state which actually survived the Sea People's onslaught—but its viceroy could only offer some words of advice for Ammurapi:
As for what you [Ammurapi] have written to me: 'Ships of the enemy have been seen at sea!' Well, you must remain firm. Indeed for your part, where are your troops, your chariots stationed? Are they not stationed near you? No? Behind the enemy, who press upon you? Surround your towns with ramparts. Have your troops and chariots enter there, and await the enemy with great resolution!
Pharaoh Ramesses III, the second king of the 20th Dynasty, who reigned for most of the first half of the 12th century BC, was forced to deal with a later wave of invasions of the Sea Peoples—the best recorded being in his eighth year. The pharaoh records the Sea People's activities in several long inscriptions from his Medinet Habu mortuary temple:
Ramesses' comments about the scale of the Sea Peoples' onslaught in the eastern Mediterranean are confirmed by the destruction of the states of Hatti, Ugarit, Ashkelon and Hazor around this time. As the Hittitologist Trevor Bryce observes:
This situation is confirmed by the Medinet Habu temple reliefs of Ramesses III which show that:
The inscriptions of Ramesses III at his Medinet Habu mortuary temple in Thebes record three victorious campaigns against the sea peoples considered bona fide: Years 5, 8 and 12, as well as three considered spurious: against the Nubians and Libyans in Year 5 and the Libyans with Asiatics in the Year 11. During the Year 8 some Hittites were operating with the sea peoples.
The inner west wall of the second court describes the invasion of Year 5. Only the Peleset and Tjeker are mentioned, but the list is lost in a lacuna. The attack was two-pronged, one by sea and one by land; that is, the sea peoples divided their forces. His majesty was waiting in the Nile mouths and trapped the enemy fleet there. The land forces were defeated separately.
The Sea peoples did not learn any lessons from this defeat, as they repeated their mistake in the Year 8 with a similar result. The campaign is recorded more extensively on the inner northwest panel of the first court. It is possible but not generally believed that the dates are only those of the inscriptions and both refer to the same campaign.
In Ramesses' Year 8, the Nine Bows appear again as a "conspiracy in their isles." This time they are revealed unquestionably as sea peoples: the Peleset, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen and Weshesh, which are classified as "foreign countries" in the inscription. They camped in Amor and sent a fleet to the Nile.
The pharaoh was once more waiting for them. He had built a fleet especially for the occasion, hid it in the Nile mouths and posted coast watchers. The enemy fleet was ambushed there, their ships overturned, the men dragged up on shore and executed ad hoc.
The land army was attacked and routed as it crossed the Egyptian border. Additional information is given in the relief on the outer side of the east wall. The land battle occurred in the vicinity of Zahi against "the northern countries." When it was over several chiefs were captive: of Hatti, Amor and Shasu among the "land peoples" and the Tjeker, "Sherden of the sea", "Teresh of the sea" and Peleset.
Papyrus Harris I of the period, found behind the temple, suggests a wider campaign against the sea peoples, but does not mention the date. In it the persona of Ramses III says: "I slew the Denyen (D'-yn-yw-n) in their isles" and "burned" the Tjeker and Peleset, implying a maritime raid of his own. He also captured some Sherden and Weshesh "of the sea" and settled them in Egypt. As he is called the "Ruler of Nine Bows" in the relief of the east side, these events probably happened in Year 8; i.e., his majesty would have used the victorious fleet for some punitive expeditions elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
The Onomasticon of Amenemope, or Amenemipit (amen-em-apt) gives a slight credence to the idea that the Ramesside kings settled the Sea Peoples in Palestine. Dated to about 1100 BC, at the end of the 21st dynasty (which had numerous short-reigned pharaohs), this document simply lists names. After six place names, four of which were in Philistia, the scribe lists the Sherden (Line 268), the Tjeker (Line 269) and the Peleset (Line 270), who might be presumed to occupy those cities. The Story of Wenamun on a papyrus of the same cache also places the Tjeker in Dor at that time.
The archaeological evidence from the southern coastal plain of modern day Israel and the Gaza Strip, termed Philistia in the Hebrew Bible, indicates a disruption of the Canaanite culture that existed during the Late Bronze Age, and its replacement (with some integration) by a culture with a possibly foreign (mainly Aegean) origin. This includes distinct pottery, which at first belongs to the Mycenaean IIIC tradition (albeit of local manufacture) and gradually transforms into a uniquely Philistine pottery. Mazar says:
Sandars, however, does not take this point of view, but says:
Artifacts of the Philistine culture are found at numerous sites, in particular in the excavations of the five main cities of the Philistines: the "Pentapolis" of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza. Some scholars (e.g. S. Sherratt, Drews, etc.) have challenged the theory that the Philistine culture is an immigrant culture, claiming instead that they are an in situ development of the Canaanite culture, but others argue for the immigrant hypothesis; for example, T. Dothan and Barako.
Two of the peoples who settled in the Levant have traditions that may connect them to Crete: the Tjeker and the Peleset (Philistines). The Tjeker may have left Crete to settle in Anatolia and left there to settle Dor. According to the Old Testament the Israelite God brought the Philistines out of Caphtor. This view is accepted by the mainstream of Biblical and classical scholarship as Crete, but there are alternative minority theories. Crete of the times was populated by peoples speaking a good many languages, among which were Mycenaean Greek and Eteocretan, the descendant of the language of the Minoans. It is possible but by no means certain that these two peoples spoke Eteocretan.
The identifications of Denyen with the Greek Danaans and Ekwesh with the Greek Achaeans are long-standing issues in Bronze Age scholarship, whether Greek, Hittite or Biblical, especially as they lived "in the isles." If the Greeks do appear as sea peoples, what were they doing? Michael Wood gives a good summary of the question and the hypothetical role of the Greeks (who have already been proposed as the identity of the Philistines above):
Wood would include also the Sherden and Shekelesh, pointing that "there were migrations of Greek-speaking peoples to the same place [Sardinia and Sicily] at this time." He is careful to point out that the Greeks must only have been an element among the peoples, and that their numbers must have been relatively small. His major hypothesis, however, is that the Trojan War was fought against Troy VI and that Troy VIIa, the candidate of Carl Blegen, was sacked by essentially Greek sea peoples. He suggests that Odysseus' assumed identity of a wandering Cretan coming home from the Trojan War who fights in Egypt and serves there after being captured "remembers" the campaign of Year 8 of Ramses III, described above. He points out also that places destroyed on Cyprus at the time (such as Kition) were rebuilt by a new Greek-speaking population.
Archaeological evidence indicates that many fortified sites of the Greek domain were destroyed in the 13th century BCE, which destruction was understood at mid-20th-century to have been simultaneous or nearly so and was attributed to the Dorian Invasion championed by Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati. He believed Mycenaean Pylos was burned during an amphibious raid by warriors from the north (Dorians).
Subsequent critical analysis focused on the facts that the destructions were not simultaneous and all the evidence of Dorians came from later times. John Chadwick championed a sea peoples hypothesis, which asserted that as the Pylians had retreated to the northeast, the attack must have come from the southwest, the sea peoples being, in his view, the most likely candidates. He states that they were based in Anatolia and although doubting that Mycenaeans called themselves "Achaeans" speculates that "... it is very tempting to bring them into connexion." He does not assign the Greek identity to all the sea peoples.
Considering the turbulence between and within the great families of the Mycenaean city-states in Greek mythology, the hypothesis that the Mycenaeans destroyed themselves is long-standing and finds support by the reputable Greek historian Thucydides, who theorized:
The connection of these predations to the fall of Mycenaean Greece and more widely to the sea peoples is a logical outcome. Although some advocates of the Philistine or Greek migration hypotheses (above) identify all the Mycenaeans or sea peoples as ethnically Greek, the cautious Chadwick (founder, with Michael Ventris, of Linear B studies) adopts rather the mixed ethnicity view.
The Sardinian architecture produced by the Nuragic civilization was the most advanced of any civilization in the western Mediterranean during the Sea Peoples epoch, including those in the regions of Magna Graecia. Of the 8,000 existent nuraghes, only a few have been scientifically excavated. Interest in Sardinian archaeology has been small, except for the black market trade in ancient bronze statues.
No evidence has been uncovered yet to settle the enigmatic Italian connections of these sea peoples. The self-name of the Etruscans, Rasna, does not lend itself to the Tyrrhenian derivation. Assertions in various articles and books that the Sherdens definitely were or were not from Sardis or some ancestor state have no foundation in the evidence. The Etruscan civilization has been studied and the language partly deciphered. It has variants and representatives in Aegean inscriptions, but these may well be from travellers or colonists of Etruscans during their seafaring period before Rome destroyed their power. The entire Etruscan civilization can scarcely be explained by a few ships of Teresh or even a whole fleet.
Archaeology is equally enigmatic. About all that can be said for certain is that Mycenaean pottery was widespread around the Mediterranean and its introduction at various places, including Sardinia, is often associated with cultural change, violent or gradual. These circumstances appear to be enough for archaeological theorizers. The prevalent speculation is that the Sherden and Shekelesh brought those names with them to Sardinia and Sicily, "perhaps not operating from those great islands but moving toward them. More recent genetic evidence indicates that the populations in those regions are more related to the people of Anatolia than to anywhere else, but this evidence is not event- or period-specific.
Connections to the Teresh of the Merneptah Stele, which also mentions shipments of grain to the Hittite Empire to relieve famine, are logically unavoidable. Many have made them, generally proposing a coalition of seagoing migrants from Anatolia and the islands seeking relief from scarcity. Tablet RS 18.38 from Ugarit also mentions grain to the Hittites, suggesting a long period of famine, connected further, in the full theory, to drought. More recently Sanford Holst proposed that the Sea Peoples, facing starvation, migrated from Anatolia and the Black Sea, in cooperation with the earliest Phoenicians (Canaanites just beginning to be called by that name), seeking food and land upon which to settle. Barry Weiss, using the Palmer Drought Index for 35 Greek, Turkish, and Middle Eastern weather stations, showed that a drought of the kinds that persisted from January 1972 would have affected all of the sites associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse. Drought could have easily precipitated or hastened socio-economic problems and led to wars. More recently Brian Fagan, has shown how the diversion of mid-winter storms from the Atlantic were diverted to travel north of the Pyrenees and the Alps, bringing wetter conditions to Central Europe, but drought to the Eastern Mediterranean, was associated with the Late Bronze Age collapse
Such a comprehensive movement is associated with more than one people or culture; instead, a "disturbance" happens, according to Finley:
If different times are allowed on the Danube, they are not in the Aegean:
The following movements are compressed by Finley into the 1200 BCE window: the Dorian Invasion, the attacks of the Sea Peoples, the formation of Philistine kingdoms in the Levant and the fall of the Hittite Empire, when in fact those events required at least a few hundred years.
The archaeological evidence is treated in the same way. Robert Drews presents a map showing the destruction sites of some 47 fortified major settlements, which he terms "Major Sites Destroyed in the Catastrophe." They are concentrated in the Levant, with some in Greece and Anatolia. The questions of dates and agents of destruction remain for the most part unanswered in detail, without which no single catastophe or related catastophes can be postulated beyond the level of pure speculation.
The invaders; that is, the replacement cultures at those sites, apparently made no attempt to retain the cities' wealth, but instead built new settlements of a materially simpler cultural and less complex economic level atop the ruins. For example, no one appropriated the palace and rich stores at Pylos, but all were burned up and the successors (whoever they were) moved in over the ruins with plain pottery and simple goods. This demonstrates a cultural discontinuity.
Whether all the discontinuities were sufficiently contemporaneous to warrant a theory of great waves of invasion is another question. Ethnic identities from the Danube and beyond are in short supply in the records.
The Serbonian Bog has been identified as Sabkhat al [Bardawil], one of the string of Bitter Lakes to the east of the Nile's right branch. It was described in ancient times as a quagmire in which armies were fabled to be swallowed up and lost.
The term Serbonian came from the name of the Sherden (also known as Serden or Shardana) sea pirates, one of several groups of "Sea Peoples" who appear in fragmentary Egyptian records in the second millennium B.C.